A version of this article was originally published in The Daily Brief, our Maine politics newsletter. Sign up here for daily news and insight from politics editor Michael Shepherd.
In the week since Maine Senate Republicans voted down a $473 million heating aid bill led by Gov. Janet Mills, there has been little positive movement on the issue.
Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, accused the Democratic governor of “lying” about negotiations. The stalemate prompted a joint offer from a Republican and a Democrat on Tuesday that will not get a deal done but perhaps showed the way forward in the face of harsh rhetoric and deep divisions.
That idea, outlined by Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, and Sen. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, was a radical departure from the Mills package. While Mills wanted $450 relief checks to single tax filers making up to $100,000 and $900 ones to couples making up to $200,000, Bennett and Grohoski’s proposal would shrink that part of the program by putting direct payments on a sliding scale and limiting them to families making up to $60,000, largely leaving money for other heating aid programs in place.
It got a lukewarm reaction from Mills and leading lawmakers, particularly because House Republicans had already negotiated an increase in the amount of Mainers who would receive checks under the program. All but 16 of them supported the aid bill in a vote last week, while Senate Republicans insisted on a public hearing before they would sign onto such a measure.
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Those holdout Republicans have come under heavy criticism from the Democrats who lead the Legislature. While Stewart has argued the Democratic-led Legislature could seat a panel to hear the bill and advance a version before the new year, committee assignments have not been released yet. That makes it likely the impasse will last into January.
Responding to the Bennett-Grohoski proposal, a spokesperson for Mills said the governor hoped any path forward would preserve “progress already made” with House Republicans. Their leader, Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, said a public hearing would be the best way to keep a deal on track. This may leave an early-January hearing as the best solution.
Democrats could call a snap hearing when lawmakers return to Augusta. That would satisfy Senate Republicans’ key demand and put them under pressure to outline policy priorities, since they have leaned on process objections so far. With the heating season in high gear, it will be harder for either side to delay a deal when lawmakers are firmly planted in the State House.
The circumstances still look to be conducive to a deal. This one has been rockier than expected, since it is generally easy to give taxpayers a good chunk of their money back. We will soon see how this dispute sets the tone for the upcoming year under the dome.